September 29, 2008


France re-launches stormy debate on EU fishing quotas



The EU's French presidency is expected Monday (September 29) to call for a complete rethink of the bloc's controversial fishing quota system, a prospect raising concerns among environmentalists and Brussels officials alike.


"Must the TAC (Total Allowable Catch) and quotas system remain the cornerstone of the common fisheries policy?" Paris asks in a preparatory document ahead the meeting of European fisheries ministers in Brussels Monday.


Brussels agrees that the fisheries policy needs revising but has one main priority in mind; reducing the size of the European fleet.


While France wants more flexibility in the quota system, the European Commission has been calling for a major cut in fishing capacity, which it believes is the only way the quotas will be respected as the current fleet is capable of catching "between two and three times the maximum sustainable yield."


The commission drew fire from fishermen recently by banning industrial tuna fishing during the June peak of the season.


Chronically overfished, Mediterranean tuna are the victims of their success with fish lovers, especially with the growing demand for sushi. About 70 percent of the Mediterranean catch goes to Japan and prices keep rising.


The move triggered a wave of fierce criticism from Europe's leading tuna fishing nations France, Italy and Spain, which accused the commission of using faulty figures and demanded the decision be scrapped.


What seems certain is that the 25-year-old quotas policy, regularly criticised by the fishing industry from one side and the environmentalists on the other, is set to change.


In January, during a speech in the major French fishing port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pronounced that "we have to finish" with "this business of quotas".


Sarkozy's fisheries minister Michel Barnier has since attempted to reassure France's EU partners, insisting that it was not a question of abolishing quotas but of revising the system.


One thing Paris would like to see introduced is multi-year planning to give more certainty to a sector which has to deal with new quotas and new scientific reports on fish stocks every year.


France also wants to calm the troubled waters which swirl between the industry and the scientists around the question of the true size of the fish stocks available.


"We want to improve the dialogue between the scientists and marine fishermen to avoid the arguments and polemic. We have to work towards the most common analysis possible, by those who are in the boats and doing the fishing and the scientists," Barnier said Friday.


France will also seek to provide a counterbalance to the EU Commission's battle against overcapacity in the sector.


Among the alternatives to be discussed Monday is introducing transferable quotas to individual fishing boats, as a tradable commodity, a system already successfully employed in Australia, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway.


The scientists and environmentalists believe that letting the market rule the waves will put the responsibility firmly on captains' shoulders and help reverse the depletion of fish stocks.


If there are not any stocks left then the quotas would become worthless.


The idea's detractors warn that small fishing boats would be enticed to sell their quotas to a small number of major industrial fleets.


For many the debate launched by France is missing the point.


The problem is not the quotas, argues Aaron Mc Loughlin, head of the WWF's European Marine Programme, but that "EU member states are not applying the rules that they've set themselves" to limit catches.


"All NGOs hold this basic common view that there are too many boats catching too few fish. So I agree with President Sarkozy that, yes it's a real issue, but France could start with dealing with the large overcapacity in the French fleet and enforcing the law," he added.


"If Sarkozy is suggesting that we can deceive the law of nature I don't think we can."

Video >

Follow Us